It’s All About the Opening -By: Art Fredette
Written by Staff on February 4, 2022
“Standing on a corner, suitcase in my hand, Jackie’s in his corset, Jane is in her vest and me honey, I’m in a rock-n-roll band” the opening line of “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground.
Sometimes, the opening line or verse of a song says it all. It can set the stage for everything that follows. The theme, the feel, even the music can be defined by one phrase, one verse, a perfect introduction as to what follows.
“Sweet Jane” fits this bill perfectly. You are introduced to Jackie and Jane, two young professionals with a seedy side and their view of the world. Right from the get go there is a hint at cross dressing and a skewed world view. References to forgotten brands of cars, scrimping money and jaundiced view of children, ladies and poets. None of this could follow if the first line didn’t set the stage. You immediately are inserted into the lifestyle of both Jack and Jane and what follows is enlightening.
“Screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays” as a young kid from New Jersey pulls up to the front porch of his girlfriend’s house with a head full of dreams and fears. He has little in the way of options but believes in the freedom offered from an old car and the idealistic belief in love. “Thunder Road ” unfolds, as both an actual thoroughfare and a metaphor for escape. Star crossed lovers searching for a way out of their dead-end future, a realistic view of the averageness of the lives they lead and the possibility of a fresh start. Some would say it is a “car” song and it may well be but what other American cliché’ has offered more freedom and hope?
England in the mid to late 1970’s was an island steeped in history with a bleak future. The figurehead and the monarchy were little more than window dressing, the economy was in the toilet, most of the working age population was on the dole and tensions were high. Insert “I am an Antichrist. I am an anarchist. Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it, I wanna destroy passer- by” the howl from an entire generation of disillusioned youth. Tired of bloated swinging London, rock-n-roll heroes with Bentleys and lip service revolution claiming to be the actual hammer of a god, and the fact that their prospects are nil. “Anarchy in The U.K.” not only throws down a gauntlet it burns with resentment. Punk rock as a genre is a populist movement made up of outcasts and The Sex Pistols capture that anger perfectly from the start. The song goes on to reject pretty much everything in society including political groups like the I.R.A and U.D.A. and entertainment stalwarts like the N.M.E, basically these guys are picking a fight.
But it isn’t only rock-n-roll or punk that can stop you dead in your tracks with an opening line or verse. Take into consideration the opening verse of “Morning Glory” by Tim Buckley. “I lit my purest candle, close to my window. Hoping it would catch the eye. Of any vagabond who passed it by. And I waited in my fleeting house.” The narrator of the song sits in the semi-darkness of his home beckoning anyone to break the silence. His light burns small, wavering in the darkness that is not only his house but his soul. The beacon works and the narrator is now locked in a conversation with the “hobo” that shakes him to his foundations. The vocals soar with pain and finally acceptance, then despair. In many ways the song is a cautionary tale. Be careful what you ask for, be wary of summoning life, an incantation to the darkness might just conjure up yourself.
Is all popular music poetry? No. Is every opening verse or line a masterpiece? No. But when an artist captures the moment, it can be magic. I am sure I have just scratched the surface with my few examples and I am sure you, dear reader, can come up with hundreds more and that is exactly the point of this exercise. Look deeper into the songs that move you. Take the time to truly hear them. Read the lyric sheet. Make them your own. Could I be off base with my interpretations of the examples above? Absolutely, but this is what I felt and to me, it rings true.
Go out and explore for yourself!